Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: The Wild Girl by Jim Fergus

In an effort to get re-motivated on blogging, I want to take this opportunity to write about The Wild Girl - the book I finished about a week ago. It's one of the books that Loki sent me last year and is also the first book on my bookshelf in my bedroom.

One of my New Year Resolutions was to finally after all these years to read a majority of the books I own. There are a few reasons behind this. 1) There are some books I've owned for at least a couple of decades that I've never read nor even opened. 2) There are some books I've accumulated from the library - withdrawn titles that I brought home for whatever reason - some of whom are damaged in one way or another - that I want to see if they're even worth keeping. 3) I have some titles that I haven't read in years. And, finally, 4) I have more books than I currently have space, and I'd like to get rid of the clutter. So I started with the first book to the left on the top shelf of my bedroom bookshelf: The Wild Girl by Jim Fergus.

The Wild Girl is the story of a few months in 1932 in the life of Ned Giles, a hopeful photojournalist, who at the age of 17 and after the death of his parents, leaves his home in Chicago to drive across county to Douglas, Arizona. There he hopes to become part of an expedition into the Mexican Sierra Madre to rescue a boy who was kidnapped by "wild" Apache Indians. The "wild girl" of the title is a 14-year-old Apache girl who is caught - "treed" - by the hunter Billy Flowers and is being held in the jail of the Mexican village from which the expedition is to set out, and one of Giles' first photographs taken for the expedition is of this girl, naked and dying, in a cell. It is then up to our main characters (the outsiders to our expedition) to convince those in authority to release the girl - nominally to use her in trade for the kidnapped boy.

The book takes the form of Ned Giles' journals which start just before leaving Chicago and ends just after the expedition and includes an entry by the character Margaret Hawkins, a female ethnographer. I point out that she is (obviously) female because in this time period, women were relegated to doing library research for the male ethnographers who were allowed to do fieldwork. And that Margaret's entry while a captive of the Apaches is not only to point out Ned's male, one-sided and sometimes fallible perspective, but also to point out that she is, indeed, out in the field.

(I'd also like to quote Grace Fill writing for Booklist, who wrote of Fergus's first book One Thousand White Women - also presented in a journal format - "Fergus is gifted in his ability to portray the perceptions and emotions of women. He writes with tremendous insight and sensitivity about the individual community and the political and religious issues of the time, many of which are still relevant today. This book is artistically rendered with meticulous attention to small details that bring to life the daily concerns of a group of hardy souls at a pivotal time in U.S. history." I found this equally true of The Wild Girl.)

Also, spread evenly throughout the journal narrative are third person pieces that give the parts of the story we couldn't know if we followed only Ned: Billy Flower's hunt and capture of the girl and the girl's escape back to her people.

I didn't hold much hope for the title at first. I'd blown it off as a Western, but that was quickly subverted and I was quickly grabbed by the introduction of the character Tolbert Phillips Jr., known as Tolly - a rich kid, homosexual dandy with delusions of The Great Gatsby whom Ned meets at a ranch job. It's obvious that Ned doesn't like Tolly - he calls him a "sissy" - and it is Tolly who gets Ned fired from the ranch job: Tolly demands Ned to take Tolly's picture while holding the penis of the bison Tolly just killed. Does this mean that Fergus doesn't like Tolly either? Is this also the author's perception of the gay character? Once again, I was ready to blow the book off, but then Tolly comes back: he isn't just a one-shot character! He makes amends to Ned and becomes part of the main character group for the rest of the story. He is also the most dynamic character in the novel: one scene, I am ready to quit in frustration at Tolly's desire to keep his father disappointed by only allowing his fairy side to fly free; the next scene, Tolly gets in touch with his inherent, if hidden, courage and surprises me. Or, rather, I am happily surprised that the author did not write Tolly off as one-dimensional like I first assumed he would.

So, I stuck with The Wild Girl, and I'm glad I did. The second part of the story - dealing with our band of outsiders and their attempt to rescue both the kidnapped boy and the captured girl - is moving, exciting, wrought in detail. It seems everything that I've read involving the West (Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, Lee K. Abbott's short stories) features some of the moodiest landscapes I've ever imagined. (It is the New World's Faerie.) Only Bronte's moors are moodier. The fairy tale nature of the story (everything is in dreamlike colors) made the mountains a place I did not want to leave, and the warmth of the characters made them people I was honestly happy to meet and sad to leave.

So I do recommend The Wild Girl, and very happily put the title back on my bookshelf for keeps. Thank you, Loki! Also, I say if you pick up a title or receive a book as a gift, don't knock it out of prefabricated judgment. Just start reading it - give it 100 pages or so* - cause the feeling of your unwillingness melting away and your joy building is well worth it.

*Unless the title is from the Twilight series or by E.L. James. It would probably be best to go ahead and line the catbox with those.

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